By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
AYMAN al Zawahiri, the new leader of Al Qaeda, has started building deeper, direct and public ties with a plethora of regional Islamist terror outfits―a strategy that was not favoured by his predecessor Osama bin Laden.
In February, the Somali militant group Al Shabab announced its merger with Al Qaeda. The two groups issued a joint video release, with Al Shabab leader Mukhtar Abu Zubair “pledging obedience” to Zawahiri and Zawahiri saying the move was “good news” for Al Qaeda.
In the last week of June, reports said Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Shabab had also started a high degree of coordination with another African Islamist outfit, Boko Haram. While Al Shabab is mainly active in Somalia and Kenya, AQIM focuses on Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, and Boko Haram on northern Nigeria.
These moves follow Osama bin Laden’s killing in May 2011 by US forces at a housing compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after which long-time deputy Zawahiri became the head of world’s most infamous terrorist organisation.
But correspondence among bin Laden, Zawahiri and various leaders of Al Qaeda and its “affiliates”, discovered at bin Laden’s compound and released recently to the public, indicates bin Laden was frustrated with many regional Jihadi groups―including Al Shabab―and wanted to keep them at a distance.
The letters reveal sharp differences within the so-called Al Qaeda Central (AQC) over the issue of uniting with other groups. One correspondence dated 7 August 2010 is bin Laden’s reply to a request for a formal merger by the Al Shabab chief. Bin Laden declines Abu Zubair’s request, saying “it would be better for them [Al Shabab members] to say that there is a relationship with Al Qaeda which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection and nothing more…” He also urges Abu Zubair to “minimize the damages on Muslims” while attacking security forces, and counsels against declaring Somalia an Islamist emirate.
Another letter written in December 2010 by an unnamed senior Al Qaeda figure criticises bin Laden for his position on Al Shabab. It reads, “I see it to be very essential for Al Qaeda to confirm and declare its linkage with its branches, in order to become a reported fact, there is no use in denying it. Therefore, please reconsider your opinion not to declare the accession of the brothers of Somalia…” Such direct censure of bin Laden is unlikely to have come from anyone other than Zawahiri, who announced the merger with Abu Zubair in February.
But the issue was not limited to Al Shabab. A total of 17 documents, including these two letters, show bin Laden to be increasingly disenchanted by the activities of regional Islamist outfits such Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). He, along with close aides such as Mahmud al Hasan Atiyya and spokesman Adam Gadahn, was particularly upset by the large number of Muslim (and sometimes even non-Muslim) casualties of their attacks, and how Islamists were losing sympathy as a result.
The AQI, then led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was the first “regional affiliate” to be formally inducted into Al Qaeda in 2004. That was a time when Al Qaeda was on the run following the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and in desperate need of a new base and support. The letters, however, show that bin Laden later considered the AQI’s indiscriminate killings to be a liability and advised other groups not to repeat its mistakes.
Gadahn, in a January 2011 letter, says Al Qaeda should openly dissociate itself from AQI following an attack on a Catholic Church in Baghdad “days after the declaration by the Catholics of the Middle East of their disagreement with Israel in a way that made the Jews and their allies angry”. Such actions, he adds, “do not help to gain people’s sympathy”. In the same letter, he also lashed out at “Sheikh Ayman’s” (Zawahiri’s) lack of political acumen.
In another letter, an unidentified writer (most likely bin Laden himself or Atiyya) urges AQAP leader Abu Basir to maintain peace in Yemen and not declare it an Islamic emirate. “We do not want to trouble ourselves and our families in Yemen… Things needed to be prepared and will organise for it to be successful because if we fail, people will not help us the second time. I believe that Yemen should be peaceful and kept as reserved military for the Ummah…” The writer urges Abu Basir to focus his efforts on attacking the United States instead.
In December 2010, Atiyya and Abu Yahya al Libi wrote to TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, admonishing his group’s tactics and ideology, particularly the killing of Muslim civilians, the use of kidnapping as well as Mehsud’s personal conduct. They said this might jeopardise other Islamist groups in the region and threatened to take “direct action” if Mehsud did not immediately heed to their advice and changed his approach.
The letters reflect three kinds of opinion within Al Qaeda on its relationship with these affiliates. Some leaders, such as Gadahn and possibly Atiyya, wanted Al Qaeda to publicly distance or even dissociate itself with these jihadi groups, fearing their “irresponsible” actions hurt Al Qaeda’s standing with common Muslims. Others, such as Zawahiri, believed that Al Qaeda was strengthened by formally allying or merging with regional affiliates. Bin Laden was clearly closer to Gadahn and Atiyya’s viewpoint and wanted to keep these groups at an arm’s length, but he did not want to break all ties with them either.
In various letters to Atiyya in 2010, bin Laden laments the “many mistakes” made “after the war expanded and the Mujahideen spread out into many regions [as] some of the brothers became totally absorbed in fighting our local enemies”. Seeking to bring them back in line, he asked Atiyya to prepare a ‘mudhakkira’ (memorandum of understanding) requiring regional affiliates to consult with Al Qaeda’s central leadership before mounting attacks.
Bin Laden v/s Zawahiri
Bin Laden’s concerns, as he spelled them out in one letter to Abu Basir, were two-fold. One, he wanted Al Qaeda and all Jihadi groups to concentrate “on its external big enemy before its internal enemy. Even though the internal enemy is considered to be a greater nonbeliever, the external enemy is more clearly defined as a nonbeliever and is more dangerous in this stage of our life. America is the head of the nonbelievers.”
Two, he was obsessed with media coverage of Al Qaeda and its affiliates’ actions, and wanted regional outfits to commit to centralise all media releases. In almost every letter that the writes to his associates, bin Laden dwells upon the role of the media in the “war” and the need to present their actions in a manner that would win the approval of common Muslims.
In the letter to Abu Basir, he says, “We need to understand that a huge part of the battle is the media, and the cable channels today play a stronger role than the Hja’in poets during the ignorant era. If the cable channels concentrate on promoting a specific person, they will have success, and the opposite is correct. If those channels do not want that person to be successful, they will destroy him…”
Clearly, bin Laden was less motivated by any genuine concern for human (or Muslim) life and more with the direction of his jihad and his image among common Muslims, even his legacy. In a letter to Atiyya, he writes: “He who does not make known his own history [runs the risk that] some in the media and among historians will construct a history for him, using whatever information they have, regardless of whether their information is accurate or not.”
Zawahiri differs, both in his mission and motivation. For him, dealing with the “internal enemy” is more important than it was for his predecessor. Once a Muslim Brotherhood member, he has often lashed out at his former associates for participating in elections and diluting their Islamist credentials. He also takes a more stringent view of Islamic law than bin Laden, as his support for Al Shabab despite their excesses suggests.
Under Zawahiri, then, ties between Al Qaeda and regional Jihadi outfits will likely deepen and become more public. The conglomerate will focus on softer targets, such as countries in Asia and Africa that are already wracked by internal conflict and have weak security forces. Countries where Arab Spring protests have thrown out or weakened the state apparatus will be particularly enticing targets. And the terrorists will be even less concerned with spilling human―including Muslim―blood than before.
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.